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Lebanon and Beirut, then and now

Once an oasis, Lebanon’s slide into disaster and chaos began when the country’s corrupt, weak leadership was drawn into the morass of Middle Eastern politics.

Lebanese protesters in Beirut on Oct. 18, 2019. Credit: Shahen Books via Wikimedia Commons.
Lebanese protesters in Beirut on Oct. 18, 2019. Credit: Shahen Books via Wikimedia Commons.
Norvell DeAtkine

When I was in Lebanon from 1967 to 1970, it was an oasis of tranquility and sophistication visited by tourists from all over the world, including Arabs seeking relief from the continuing carnage in their own lands. The other students in my class at the American University in Beirut (AUB) were from all over the Middle East and the United States. The faculty was more open-minded than what you find on American universities today.

For instance, one textbook we used (From Golden River to Golden Road) was written by the famous ethnographer Raphael Patai. Patai is seen among elitist Arabs and Islamists today as one of the most hated writers on Arab culture, not because he was wrong or denigrated Arabs, but basically because he was Jewish. They particularly hate his book The Arab Mind—the best book ever written on Arab culture in English.

If one had to choose the specific date on which the Lebanese dream ended, it would be when Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser (1968) bullied the weak Lebanese leaders into reaching an agreement with Yasser Arafat to use Lebanon as a launching pad for attacks in Israel. The Egyptian ambassador, whose name I cannot remember, was known as Lebanon’s proconsul. The Lebanese government always acceded to his demands.

According to the agreement, the Palestinians were allowed to use the “Arafat Trail” along the tops of Lebanese mountains to attack Israel. In return, it was supposed to keep armed Palestinians off the streets. But of course, they did not, and soon the streets of Beirut were swarming with swaggering armed Palestinian thugs/freedom fighters. The Lebanese, as always, acquiesced. Most ironically, prior to the agreement, the Lebanese army had bested the Palestinian Liberation Organization in a series of clashes in the mountains.

The majority of the population of Lebanon did not want to be part of the Arab world. Certainly not the Maronite Christians or most of the Shi’ites, who view “Arab unity” as a term for Sunni Arab domination. As an Iraqi scholar once famously said, “nothing divides the Arabs as much as the question of unity.” However, in the years since the Lebanese have had to genuflect, at least publicly, at the altar of Arab unity—until it was overtaken by an even more malevolent force: Iran.

The Iranians were quick to take advantage of the Shi’ite reawakening in Lebanon, a reawakening hastened by the “return of Islam”—in effect the radical Sunni movements who view the Shi’ites as infidels. The Shi’ites of Lebanon were always the country’s underclass, providing the maids and laborers for the rich Christians and Sunnis. This was aggravated by the presence of Palestinian refugees fleeing the 1948 and 1967 wars who took control of the Shi’ite region of Lebanon and treated the Shi’ites like indentured servants. This ultimately resulted in the April 1985 “War of the Camps” in which Shi’ite fighters roamed through Palestinian refugee camps killing everyone in sight.

Today, with Iran’s support the Shi’ites of Hezbollah control Lebanon, and their clerics have enriched themselves at the expense of the people. As is the case almost everywhere in the Arab world, the “Israeli threat” has become a diversion used by the rulers to keep the people in somnolence.

French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut’s harborside blast zone on Aug. 6, where he got a firsthand glimpse of the public fury toward the Lebanese leadership. A woman who hugged him later begged him not to send financial aid to the Hezbollah government or the political elite “because they will steal the money.” Others called on France to govern Lebanon as a protectorate, like it once did. The Christians, Sunni Arabs and other segments of the population, including a fairly significant number of Shi’ites, despise Hezbollah and its sometime cleric and full-time terrorist leader, Hassan Nasrallah, but with the support of Syria and Iran, and a large proportion of Shi’ites in the ranks of the Lebanese army, it’s not likely to be ousted from power.

Norvell DeAtkine, a retired U.S. Army colonel with nine years’ residence in the Arab world dealing with their militaries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, and has spent about 40 years studying the region. He still instructs army personnel assigned to the Middle East.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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